REVIEW – Austen’s Women: Lady Susan at the Georgian Theatre Royal

Austin’s Women: Lady Susan; Ben Guest Photographer; Dyad Productions

Expectations were high for this production at The Georgian Theatre Royal. Rebecca Vaughan is no stranger to its historic stage – I, Elizabeth, Female Gothic and A Room of One’s Own – to name but a few of her past solo shows – and she has a strong Richmond following.

Rebecca started touring as Dyad Productions back in 2009 with Austen’s Women and she returns to the revered author for this latest production, introducing audiences to a somewhat lesser-known Austen heroine – Lady Susan Vernon.

Lady Susan is an epistolary novel – a very popular genre in the 18th Century – written in 1794 but not published until 1871 after Austen’s death. It comprises letters between the fictional characters of the narrative and lends itself perfectly to a solo show, allowing for a whole range of character reactions to unfolding events.

Helped by quick-fire lighting changes and a clapping of the hands, Rebecca Vaughan switches expertly between the scheming tones of Devil-may-care Lady Susan to the simpering barbs of her long-suffering sister-in-law Catherine. Other protagonists include her rebellious and ‘neglected’ daughter Frederica, family matriarch Mrs De Courcy and the insouciant best friend, Alicia.

As always with Austen, the famed wit and pertinent choice of language make the lines fresh and razor sharp. Vaughan delivers them with a dazzling skill that ensures the plot moves at such a fast a pace that the audience is left in awe at a performer who can hold the stage so utterly and completely. This was essentially a 75-minute monologue with hardly a pause for breath.

The plot itself is highly reflective of Austen’s characteristic social and political commentary. As a recent widow, Lady Susan has nowhere to live and must fend for herself in society by relying upon the kindness and whims of family and strangers. She can’t fully inherit; she can’t earn money and therefore must look to another match for herself and her 16-year-old daughter and, during the course of the narrative, attempts to hunt down not one but two fortunes.

She commits many improprieties; is a horrible flirt, has an affair with a married man and is an awful mother. Society judges her as “the most accomplished coquette in England.”

Jane Austen famously described another of her heroines, Emma, as a character that no-one but herself will much like. Having been introduced to this ‘new’ heroine, do we like the charming, scheming and witty Lady Susan? Perhaps so, and we can certainly empathise with her position in a world, where without money, women cannot easily survive.